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Gore-tex Style

Success: W. L. Gore & Associates Uses A Unique Management Method To Keep Its Company And Fabric-laminate Business Thriving.

April 20, 1997|By Debbie M. Price | Debbie M. Price,SUN STAFF

In 1989, after 13 years of making waterproof, breathable fabrics for a smallish market of serious outdoor enthusiasts, Gore began licensing manufacturers to use the Gore-Tex material and label. This move not only gave Gore-Tex name-brand recognition in a much broader consumer market -- even as outdoor clothing was gaining fashion cachet -- it also gave the company greater control over the use of its product.

Gore sells only to select manufacturers and then approves every design to prevent poor construction from sabotaging its lifetime guarantee.

If a jacket can't survive the company's rain room, high-tech abrasion tests or thousands of hours in its washing machines, it can't be a Gore-Tex jacket.

Manufacturers and retailers are invited to visit the rain room and Gore's testing labs where they can see for themselves -- and describe for their customers -- the abuse the material takes and survives. Additionally, Gore regularly teams with its manufacturing partners in glossy, high-dollar product promotions, blitzing the consumer with full-color ads and dressing sales forces in its clothing.

Recently, in one such promotion, Gore gave Mountain Hardwear Windstopper jackets to each of the 50 full-time employees of Hudson Trail Outfitters, which has stores in the Baltimore-Washington area. Gore-Tex, not coincidentally, remains the "No. 1 fabric for outerwear" and the greatest revenue generator for Hudson Trail Outfitters, Holmes says.

Product is expensive

Such testing and promotion, though, don't come cheap. Gore-Tex can add more than $100 to the cost of a jacket. Increasingly, retailers and manufacturers are questioning whether Gore can continue to thrive at such rarefied levels. At the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in Utah last year, at least three major manufacturers and Gore-Tex stalwarts introduced their own breathable, waterproof fabrics, in part to counter retailers' complaints that Gore-Tex jackets priced at $350 and more are becoming harder to sell. North Face plans to introduce a jacket containing its Hydroseal this fall, priced at $260, or about $100 less than its model containing Gore-Tex, according to Dana Donley, a company spokeswoman.

"We don't compare it to Gore-Tex," Donley is quick to note. "Gore-Tex is very important to us and we'll continue to use it in our high-end products, but Hydroseal offers a lower-priced opportunity for consumers."

Leigh Gallagher, managing editor of Sporting Goods Business magazine, says that it is still too early to know how much competition the other companies will give Gore. Their biggest hurdle, she notes, will be Gore's formidable advertising.

"Their marketing has been unbeatable," says Gallagher.

Gore representatives, meanwhile, profess not to consider the competition. (Several associates said they did not even know the names of competitors.)

"We're not concerned about price point," says Sally Gore. "If it's a life-and-death issue, you'll take Gore-Tex because you can rely on it."

Outgrowth of Teflon

Gore-Tex is produced scant miles from the home built into a hillside near Newark, Del., where the late Wilbert "Bill" Gore and his wife, Genevieve "Vieve" Gore, began their business. As a chemist at DuPont, Bill Gore, who died hiking in Wyoming in 1986, had worked to find other uses for Teflon. When DuPont rejected his idea to make insulation for copper wiring, he struck out on his own in 1958, with the company's permission.

The couple took "all the money that they had in the bank," sold their car, gave their five children duties around the house and prepared to live as frugally as backwoods hikers, said Vieve Gore, who at 84 is still active in the company as secretary-treasurer.

"We knew if we did all that, we could last two years from the time Bill left DuPont until we had to be earning money to survive," she said. "We just knew that we had to get going and once we did, we became very focused and really eager to move ahead."

In the early days, 13 of the 16 people working for the company lived in the Gore home, sleeping on the floor and experimenting until all hours of the night. (Of the original 16, 11 people are still with the company.)

For the first two years, the fledgling company made the PTFE-coated wire in the Gores' basement and twisted the long cables by hand on the lawn outside.

"One of our customers wrote back, `We've tested your cable and it works fine and we want to buy some, but how in the dickens did the grass get in it?' " Vieve Gore recalls.

As a scientist, Bill Gore understood the necessity of combining freedom with discipline -- the freedom to explore, to create and even to fail and the discipline to persevere and to meet exacting standards. His approach to running a company sprang from such understandings and his desire to give workers the power to create.

No bosses, no titles

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